Google has a bold vision for the future — but first, it has to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Remember Google Glass? It was one of Google's most notorious failures. A head-mounted computer that ran apps and let its wearer take videos and photos, it came to to symbolise the glaring disconnect between the tech industry and the real world. Wearers were ridiculed as “glassholes,” and it was banned from some venues over privacy concerns. Some wearers were even punched.
In 2015, Google Glass was discontinued. But the Californian technology company is now in the early stages of another augmented reality technology project that promises to transform how people interact with the world around them — and with the potential for similar privacy concerns.
Project Tango is augmented reality for smartphones. Point your a compatible phone’s camera, and it’ll overlay a virtual world on top of the real ones — digital signs and objects, viewable only through the portal in your hand. You could see how a sofa you want to buy looks in your room, or play a game based around the objects on your coffee table.
Right now, it’s only available in a few high-end devices, but Google’s ultimately vision is to see it in nearly every handset, as essential as GPS, company reps told a group of journalists at a briefing in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday.
But what does this mean for privacy? By transforming the real world into a digital interface, it opens the door to far more intensive tracking and recording of everyone in it, with public camera usage becoming far more ubiquitous than ever before.
For Google’s VP of business and operations for VR, Amit Singh, the fact that it’s in a phone should make all the difference. "I think the smartphone-base form factor makes it eminently more acceptable initially, in my view," he said.
Unlike Google Glass, "it’s obvious [the phone is capturing video]. You’re taking a user action, there’s intent behind the action … the counter-party can object."
With Glass, he added, "you never knew. And it’s the same thing with Spectacles [Snapchat parent company Snap’s new camera-mounted glasses], it’s hard to tell. So as an industry, we’ll have to continue to mature down that path."
But this might not always be the case. Asked what his theoretical ideal form of augmented reality would be, Singh described a simple, "unobtrusive" pair of glasses with a full field of view and clear lenses.
He cautioned that "you’re talking about the future now, I can’t predict when that’ll be" — but it’s a vision that may concern those who were opposed to Google Glass the first time around.
And with the likes of Project Tango, the first steps are already being made. "AR will first come, very, very soon, in smartphones. Everyone has them … that’ll happen sooner than most people realise.”
Singh — and Google more broadly — is betting that attitudes have also softened in the intervening years.
"I think over time, my suspicion is …" he said, before changing track. “I was walking through Mobile World Congress, people just filming everybody, it’s just what’s happening, in three or four years, is just societally things have changed."